Full-service schools aim to focus on students' health and scores

Dr. Amy Bonifas
Dr. Amy Bonifas checks out Charles Greaves, 12, a student at Brooklyn Center Arts and IB School.
Tim Post / MPR News

When 12-year old Charles Greaves, a 7th grader at Brooklyn Center Arts and International Baccalaureate School, had a recent run in with a football, he needed help.

"My friend he was throwing it to the person I was supposed to guard, then I tried intercepting it, then it hit my eye and bounced in the air," he said.

That meant a trip to the school clinic run by Dr. Amy Bonifas, a doctor from Park Nicollet Health Services.

"Today he's got a little bit of a red spot in it," she said. "The nurse sent him down. It was pretty watery and we just wanted to make sure everything is was OK."

Bonifas was able to give Charles a clean bill of health and send him back to class.

Her presence at the school springs from a small movement across the country to turn schools into more than just a place to learn.

Education advocates say adding health care services, parenting classes and community events will help people in under-served communities engage more with their schools. They say that will help close the gap between white students and students of color on standardized tests.

In Minnesota, the idea has gotten a toe-hold in Brooklyn Center, where district officials say the model is helping improve the health of students and better engage the community.

Although state data on test scores shows that so far student achievement has been mixed, there clearly are benefits, among them the health services provided by Bonifas.

Brooklyn Center School
Brooklyn Center has the only district-wide full service community school system in the state.
Tim Post / MPR News

"This is a fully functioning clinic," she said. "We've got three exam rooms, we can get through 15 to 18 kids in an afternoon."

There's also an eye clinic, a mental health clinic and a dental clinic.

School officials converted two classrooms into the healthcare clinic in 2009. The $250,000 clinic was funded by the Park Nicollet Foundation.

The clinic provides free healthcare, not only to students in this school, but any child who lives in Brooklyn Center.

That means students spending less time at off campus doctor visits, they're also more likely to get the healthcare they need, said Patrice Howard, community school manager for the Brooklyn Center school district. That translates into fewer absences.

Patrice Howard
Patrice Howard is the manager of community schools in the Brooklyn Center school district.
Tim Post / MPR News

In 2009, there were more than 9,000 absences in the district's high school. Last year there were fewer than 6,500.

Howard also credits the school's health clinic, and services like tutoring and before and after school programs, for pushing up the reading scores for English learners and special education students in recent years.

"We know that the things that are doing are helping and we do attribute it to a lot of our co-located services and our partnerships," she said.

But it doesn't appear that the full-service community school model has improved overall test scores in the district.

Math and reading scores are 20 points lower than the state average, and have dipped in the last two years, and a gap of more than 15 percentage points separates the reading and math test scores of white students and black students.

"The ways [a community school] helps youngsters are not always going to show up in test scores or graduation rates, sometimes they will, sometimes they won't," said Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change. "But if your goal is just to improve standardized test scores or graduation rates this isn't necessarily going to produce that result."

Nathan, who in 2007 wrote a report on schools that collaborate with outside organizations, said that doesn't mean full-service community schools are a bad idea.

The services such schools provide result in healthier kids and more stable families. They also help schools and community organizations save money by sharing spaces and resources, he said.

That's a hallmark of community schools, said Marty Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools in Washington, D.C.

"By creating the school as the place that they're all working together, we're really leveraging existing resources and using them much more efficiently," he said.

Blank points to many community school success stories across the country, schools that turned around test scores and narrowed the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

He said there are about 6,000 such schools in the country, a number he'd like to see double in coming years.

Outside of the Brooklyn Park district, in Minnesota there are handful of community schools, all with slightly different approaches.

Education officials say more schools across the state are now talking about becoming partners with local organizations and adopting the full service model.

Michael Diedrich, the education fellow at Minnesota 2020, a think tank in St. Paul, said the community school movement is about changing how people view their local school.

"It's a very natural fit to look at extending what we're doing with these buildings, to make sure that they are places where students come to go to classes during the day but are also available for a range of activities for families and adults in the community," he said.

Diedrich hopes education leaders and Minnesota lawmakers make a commitment to open more full service community schools in Minnesota.

Diane Specht, the head of the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota, says that can be done without action from the legislature.

"Investment and a commitment to a full service community school doesn't have to be from the government," Specht said. "We don't have to legislate any of this, we can make this happen."

Specht says full service community schools can become a new community hub by responding to the needs of students and their families.